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Students produce voter’s guide

Megan O'Neil | Friday, October 3, 2003

A group of Saint Mary’s students have created “The Citizen’s Toolkit,” a voters’ manual for the upcoming local elections.

Students in Professor Susan Baxter’s journalism course compiled the booklet, which follows last year’s inaugural edition. The Toolkit includes biographical information and campaign goals for candidates seeking eleven different municipal positions, including those running in the South Bend and Mishawaka mayoral races.

As a result of the smaller-scale elections this year, the Toolkit will only be available in an online form.

Baxter said she created the idea for the project two years ago out of necessity. New to the area, she and her husband requested a voters’ guide at the county clerk’s office, but were told that no such resource was available although it was often requested. Baxter seized the chance to improve her students’ writing and interviewing skills, and expose them to the world of public service.

“The beauty of all this,” said Baxter, “is that it provides classroom discussion and teachable moments which you could not invent.”

Her first goal, she said, was to build an opportunity for her students to publish their work and add to their professional portfolios. The second was to provide a service to the voters of South Bend and allow them to get to know their own political candidates.

Participant Laura Coristin described herself as both excited and apprehensive when she was assigned to interview South Bend Mayor Stephen Luecke for the project. She said she came away from the interview, however, impressed with the candidate’s friendliness and dedication.

“It is kind of cool to do an assignment for a class that means something,” Coristin said. “Professor Baxter could have just given us another paper. And it is great to be able to go to an employer and say ‘Hey look, I have been published.'”

Most students in the class were unfamiliar with the dynamics of local politics. Their work on the voters’ guide, however, has changed that, and many said they intend to keep an eye on their assigned candidates on election-day.

“I would say this project is good because it lets you get to know the politicians on a personal level,” said student Lora Wilcomb.

Overall, the production of the second Citizen’s Toolkit has been smoother than the first. While not all the candidates contacted this year chose to be interviewed, those who did were very gracious, students said.

Last year, one student’s assigned candidate left the interview abruptly and she was forced to pay for a large breakfast bill herself. In another more serious incident, students discovered that a candidate did not have a legal address in South Bend, a requirement for someone seeking public office.

Members of the South Bend community have welcomed the Toolkit warmly.

When word of the resource got out, voters began to request the guide specifically.

Last year, hard copies were distributed at the county clerk’s office, libraries, and Wal-Mart. A link to online version can be found on the Women’s League of Voters and the South Bend Tribune’s Web sites.

Baxter calls the success of the project a testament to Saint Mary’s and its students, and she said she plans to continue publishing the guide annually.

“I wasn’t surprised with the product last year, and what has come in this year so far,” Baxter said. “I wouldn’t do this project with a lesser group of students.”